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Keep reaching for the stars, just don’t pull them down

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By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST

We see it all the time, restaurants and bars, somewhat reluctantly, get on what Americans seem to think is a must for everything under the sun: a list—from trivial websites created for no other reason than advertising to programs such as Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

Once an establishment gets overnight notoriety, things are never the same. Then the inevitable: the atmosphere, uniqueness and quality begin to suffer.

While living in Texas, I patronized one such eatery. It was, of course, on a list for the best burger in the city. When the table next to me overheard me lamenting over what might have been, they said the place was never the same ever since the publicity.

On a more refined scale, the French have had the same challenge for decades. Although instead of the dreaded triple D of Guy Fieri, it’s the triple star from Le Guide de Michelin.

Michelin star chefs are giving up their stars throughout Europe. I would tell you that the rate at which chefs are returning stars is unprecedented. But the reality is that the very fact they are doing it at all is unprecedented. It wasn’t that many years ago that turning

down or giving up a coveted Michelin star was considered business suicide. And fellow chefs would ask you, in the sincerest way, if you had lost your mind.

While other French chefs, such as the late Bernard Loiseau, have been quoted in books saying they wish they never would have received any Michelin stars, or at least the coveted third star, the prickly British chef Marco Pierre White may have been the first chef to renounce his stars when he did so for his flagship London restaurant. White went so far as to ask Michelin not to rank his Singapore restaurant or even patronize his restaurant, at least while wearing their guide hat.

And they’re nor stopping at three stars. Jerome Brochot received his very first star and returned it shortly after. Laguiole, France is home to the father and son team of Michel and Sebastian Bras. Their legendary eatery is set, somewhat inconspicuously, in the French countryside. They too have given back their stars, citing too much pressure, day in and day out, to the point of losing passion and diminishing the enjoyment of their craft. And it’s happening all over Europe—from Nice to Tuscany, from London to San Sebastian.

If you still don’t think that restaurants and restauranteurs feel a pressure most other businesses can’t imagine, or that we are compelled to besiege and ingest what someone deemed an exceptional restaurant, no matter what we leave in our wake, consider this: Do actors give back Oscars or Tonys? Do scientists say thanks but no thanks to the Nobel Prize? Has a Pulitzer ever been turned down? So, what are we to do?

Perhaps there is still something to be said about simply enjoying the experience and just taking in the moment. For me, there’s something about knowing that you may have your own little corner of the world—that place that makes the best Boulevardier, the silkiest foie gras torchon or even the best burger.

We may just be inadvertently be putting unnecessary pressure on these chefs by holding them in such high regard. In the end, it is, after all, only food.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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